By Thomas Gerbasi
It’s the mantra Rashad Evans repeats to himself every time he’s in a fight and
things start to deviate from the plan he’s been seeing in his head for the previous eight weeks in training camp. It’s that little assurance that he’s put in his time, he’s ready, and that the man in the Octagon with him is just that – a man. He’s not a robot, not superhuman, and then Evans starts to believe that if he can just stick it out and weather the storm, he’ll win the fight.
“In my mind, I say ‘there’s no way that I’m losing this fight,’” said Evans, who in 18 trips to the ring or Octagon has won 17 times with just 1 draw against Tito Ortiz keeping him from perfection. “No matter how bad I’m feeling, I’m just thinking the whole time that I’m in a fight and getting pushed that ‘I’m not losing, I’m not losing.’ I just say that over and over to myself. When things are getting hard or I’m fading out, I just say that and it works out.”
Not surprising coming from a psychology major from Michigan State University and one of the most cerebral fighters in mixed martial arts today. Talk to the 29 year old light heavyweight contender for any length of time and you’ll walk away with more than a few nuggets of information that can be applied to any walk of life; for him they just happen to apply to MMA, and as far as he’s concerned, the philosophy of the fight can sometimes be the key to him winning the fight.
“It’s my personality,” he admits. “I was a psychology major and I’ve always been into myself on the thinking aspect. It’s translated into my fighting as well. I’m always having that thought going on that I have to have a philosophy going into these fights. It gets hard when you’re in there and you’re uncertain about the way things are gonna go. You want to be successful and you’ve got all these different pressures and it’s not the same sport that it was when you first started because now you have to make a living off of it. So you have to have some thought in your mind that no matter what happens, that if I never make another penny doing this again, I’m okay with that. And you have to really believe that.”
Yet ask any longtime participant in combat sports, and they’ll tell you that the moment you start thinking too much in competition is the moment you end up on your back staring at the lights. To many, you’ve truly reached your peak in the fight game when you’re performing solely on instinct. Evans agrees that there is a fine line to be walked between thinking and acting.
“There is a fine line and you can’t be all in your head,” he said. “You can’t be so in your head that you’re thinking ‘oh, what if this don’t happen, what if this happens?’ You have to let go and relax enough to take some chances. When you’re so much in your head that you’re worried about winning and losing, you don’t pull the trigger sometimes when you should because you’re thinking ‘well, what if I get caught?’”
Evans has admitted in the past that he has got caught up in thinking too much, namely in the draw against Ortiz in July of 2007. It was a fight that didn’t see Evans get going until late in the bout, and when he did kick into gear it looked like a another round or two would have gotten him a TKO or KO over the former UFC light heavyweight champ, but as it stood, in a three round bout, Evans had to settle for a draw.
He vowed never to let a performance like that happen again, and while he battled to a close decision win over Michael Bisping four months later, he was at his best this past September when he knocked out Chuck Liddell in the second round. It was the type of fight that showed just what he could do when firing on all cylinders, and that’s not just referring to his one punch knockout of ‘The Iceman’, but to his adherence to the gameplan, his movement, speed, standup flurries, and all around control of the Octagon space.
But of course you now have to ask – is this the real Evans, or will he be erratic and have an off-night this Saturday in his first world title fight against Forrest Griffin? Then again, it’s a question that could be posed about Griffin as well, as he has had his share of up and down nights since coming off The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. Evans is ready for the best Griffin possible.
“He’s a fighter like myself in that he’s still developing and still trying to figure out his thing and get that niche where he has those consistent performances,” said Evans. “I know what he’s capable of, just from seeing his bad fights and his great fights, so that’s pretty much what I’m looking at. I’m not looking to get one Forrest at a time; I know what he’s capable of and I know what he’s gonna go out there and try to do. That’s the guy I’m looking to face and that’s the guy I’m making my plans for. I’m not thinking ‘oh, he may be up or down’ or anything like that. I’m just going in there and seeing what he’s bringing to the table right away. Then I’m gonna know exactly what Forrest I’m facing.”
Win or lose on Saturday, it’s been a good year for Evans, one filled with a big win, a host of magazine covers and television appearances, and a realization from the fight community that he, like Griffin, is for real. You don’t put together four victories to win The Ultimate Fighter season two and then go 6-0-1 in the Octagon after that if you can’t fight. The Niagara Falls knows it too, even if there were doubts along the way.
“I’m enjoying this because it’s something that wasn’t gotten easy; it’s something that I really had to strive and work hard to get,” said Evans. “At times I started second guessing myself, but I continued to progress and get better, and I started to believe in myself. When you start to really believe in yourself and believe that there’s nothing you can’t achieve – even when there are days that you don’t always feel like it – that’s when you really turn that corner and things start working out for
you. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m just enjoying myself, and if I go out there and have a great performance, I will win. But if I go out there and I don’t win or if he has a better fight than me, then my journey starts all over again. But it’s a journey that I’m willing to take, and one that I’m gonna love doing all over again if I have to. And I will get to where I want to be, it’s just a matter of when I’m gonna get there.”
You get the feeling that Saturday night wouldn’t be a bad time for Evans to get there, just like you would guess that it would be pretty nice for him to start off 2009 with the words “UFC light heavyweight champion” in front of his name. But if there’s a downside to all of this, it’s that if Evans moves to 18-0-1 with a win over Griffin and takes the 205-pound belt, he won’t be able to sneak up on anybody as the underdog anymore. Well, he’s got that one figured out as well.
“I always keep in my mindset, no matter what, that I am the underdog,” said Evans. “And being the underdog comes more from a training perspective than as how others view you, because if you train as if you are the underdog, then you’re doing the little things. You’re doing the stuff when you don’t feel like doing it and that’s what being the underdog really means. Because when somebody says you’re the underdog, it’s more a motivational factor to say ‘oh yeah? I’m gonna show them. Let me go do this extra work or make sure I do this a little bit better.’ As long as you take that mentality of doing that extra work or doing the things that you feel that you need to get to that next level, then I think you can still fight from that position.”
But who’s gonna tell him that he’s an underdog?
“I’m gonna be telling myself that.” Link